It’s getting quite painful watching people both wilfully and accidentally misuse the term cultural appropriation. An example being Marc Jacobs, who came into the firing line for his use of dreadlocks in his most recent runway show. Whilst I found the dreadlock thing an interesting decision on his part, it was his defence that ‘no one criticises women of colour for having straight hair,’ that really stuck out to me. Once again, cultural appropriation was being embezzled and used to describe something else. Mr Jacobs, the fact that ‘western culture’ does not criticise women of colour for straightening their hair is one of the very reasons why they started doing it and continue to do so. They did it to fit in, to stave off criticism and to survive in a dominant culture, which to this day, still stigmatises their ethnic hairstyles as unprofessional. It is called cultural assimilation not appropriation and the difference between the two is tied to the balance of power between the cultures at play.
My absolute favourite fraudulent use of the term cultural appropriation however, is when people argue that it isn’t a ‘thing’ or that it’s an example of political correctness gone too far. That all cultures borrow from one another and it is just an example of cultural exchange. If you are unable to see that cultural appropriation exists and is a problem then it is very likely that you stand in a position of privilege, which means it doesn’t affect you. That does not mean however, that it doesn’t exist. Believe me it does. It exists when Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez are admired and lauded for their bodies whilst Nicki Minaj and Serena Williams are shamed and subject to abuse for theirs. When Cindy Crawford and Angelina Jolie’s lips are considered sexy and sultry, whilst an Instagram post of model Aamito Stacie Lagum’s lips is subject to hateful racists trolling. When Miley Cyrus can get a nation twerking but Serena William’s crip walk is disrespectful. When Iggy Azalea, Macklemore and Eminem receive global acclaim and win awards for their work whilst black artists are ignored and rap music is still often cited as the root of all that is evil in black communities.
Cultural appropriation exists when Cosmo magazine can rename canerows boxer braids then praise the Kardashians as the pioneers of this amazing new trend yet the US army introduces and subsequently backtracks on a new set of rules, which effectively bans black service women from braiding their hair. Whilst over in South Africa, black students have to fight for the right to wear braided hair in school. It exists when Marc Jacobs can put dreadlocks on his runway of predominantly white models yet cite the artistic influences as “80s, raver culture, Boy George, and Harajuku”, but not too long ago Giuliana Rancic under the guise of a fashion critique, called out Zendaya’s faux dreadlock style as looking like it smelled of patchouli and weed. All within the context of an industry where black models struggle to find make-up artists and hair stylists who can work with black hair and dark skin tones. Marc Jacobs enjoys the privilege of using dreadlocks to further his ‘art’ whilst the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declares it legal for employers to ban employees from wearing them.
It’s not merely about one culture being influenced by another or even ‘borrowing’ from one another. I’m all for cultural exchange, one which promotes a mutually beneficial understanding of both cultures and is respectful rather than acquisitive. Though I do recognise it’s a very fine line to walk. My real bugbear is when aspects of a culture or race is high-jacked, then re-packaged so its origins are obscured. All whilst still discriminating against or abusing members of said culture/race for having the very same traits.
For me it’s about the imbalance of power still at play and the damage that it does to members of the marginalised and appropriated culture. It’s a double standard and one I’m truly dreading having to explain to my children. I’m not here to tell anyone what to do – wear your dreadlocks, use your lip fillers and sing your imitation R&B and rap by all means. But I would ask you to take the time to stop, think, listen and learn about the cultures you are privileged enough to dip in and out of so freely. That you get to ‘wear’ like a gaudy Halloween costume you can take off at the end of the day. That is a privilege not everyone has.